“Bennie Cunningham was a man whose priorities were family and friendship — and the line was fuzzy between the two.”
December 23, 1954 – April 23, 2018
He has been called the greatest tight end in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The first African-American football player to make an All-America team in school history, he came to Clemson in 1972 and played on the football team from 1972 to 1975. He was a first-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1976, and he played for that team until 1985, bringing home two Super Bowl rings. He was one of the greats of college and professional football. Yet, while his fame may have come from his prowess on the football field, his legacy was the many lives he touched and changed in those years and the years since.
Bennie Cunningham passed away on April 23, 2018, at the age of 63 after a battle with cancer.
When Cunningham retired from the Steelers, he returned to the classroom, first to finish his bachelor’s degree and then to earn a master’s degree in secondary education. He went on to a long career as a guidance counselor at West Oak High School in Westminster, where he shared his wisdom and direction with thousands of students over the years.
At his funeral at Seneca Baptist Church, filled to capacity with family, former teammates, professional colleagues and friends, the stories made it clear that Bennie Cunningham was a man whose priorities were family and friendship — and the line was fuzzy between the two. Friends became family.
Cunningham’s son, Bennie Cunningham III ’10, talked about his father’s legacy at Clemson, in Pittsburgh, and with his family: “My father planted trees that he may never have enjoyed the fruit from, and I think that’s our purpose: planting trees we may not enjoy the fruit of.”
As a student at Clemson, Cunningham won the Frank Howard Award, presented to an athlete each year for “bringing honor to Clemson.” He continued throughout his life to bring honor to Clemson. Coach Dabo Swinney called him “one of our greatest players, arguably the greatest tight end in our history and ACC history.”
But Swinney went on to say that “more importantly was the way he represented Clemson as a professional athlete and in his life after football.”
We are grateful for the life of Bennie Cunningham, and grateful that this was his Clemson.